New Internationalist

Interview with Semantics King Jr

September 2006

who is bringing The Vision to Liberians

His clothes are drenched with sweat, his skin is burning, and his brain feels as if it’s being pierced with needles. In a one-room clinic in Buduburam Refugee Camp, Ghana, Semantics King Jr receives the news from the doctor that he’s been dreading for the past week. He has both malaria and typhoid: an expensive combination that will cost $20 to treat – money that he doesn’t have.

But the 27-year-old exiled Liberian is only momentarily downcast. He is used to going without treatment. Instead he has ploughed almost all of his money into The Vision, the camp newspaper he and fellow journalist Jos Garneo Cephas established in 2004.

And today King is going to celebrate. Nothing, he says, will stop him. For the May edition of The Vision is hitting the camp’s dusty streets: the two-year anniversary edition of the paper that has brought news to the refugee community under exceptional circumstances.

Located one hour from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, Buduburam is home to 42,000 Liberian refugees displaced over the last 15 years by war. The camp is a chaotic mass of bars and stalls, selling everything from make-up to TVs. The internet cafés and polished appearance of its inhabitants belie the overcrowding, the occasional cholera outbreaks, and the war that has killed so many Liberians.

‘Everyone at Buduburam is a victim of war,’ says King. ‘Our families have been torn apart by rape, murder and fear.’

King arrived here as a refugee in 2000 after being beaten, stabbed and thrown in a ditch following a controversial radio broadcast in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. He quickly realized that the refugees were without a news source about both their overcrowded camp and the war in their homeland. He also realized that, despite the camp’s much-vaunted appearance, Buduburam had a heavily stereotyped image in the Ghanaian media ‘as an AIDS-infested and crime-ridden blot and a training ground for mercenaries’.

To counteract this image, King battled to establish a paper that would bridge the communication gap between camp residents, the host community and the Ghanaian Government.

In May 2004, King and Cephas gathered enough funds to go to press. The Vision has been a central news source for Buduburam’s inhabitants ever since. King has worked 24 hours a day as reporter, editor and fundraiser – surviving only through the generosity of friends. With money he was given for food, he went straight to the internet café to search for donors. He had frequent bouts of malaria, but spent no money on treatment. The wages that Cephas has made through freelance reporting have paid for the paper’s publication.

As funds dried up, The Vision was forced out of print twice – for four months in early 2005, and again in October. ‘I was frustrated, disappointed and nearly gave up,’ says King, ‘but I felt I would have committed an unforgivable sin if I had left our vulnerable refugee population without an outlet.’

This kind of dedication has inspired volunteers to sacrifice any vestige of economic stability and work with King for free. ‘They are all refugees. I worry about them… how are they going to eat?’ Despite huge obstacles, King and his team of eight reporters have succeeded in providing impressive human rights reporting: securing the release of illegally imprisoned Liberians, uncovering the misappropriation of camp funds by officials, and exposing the brutal treatment of Liberians attempting to leave the Krisan Refugee Camp in western Ghana.

Now, as a cautious but optimistic peace is presided over by new Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, King and his team are planning to move The Vision to Liberia next year.

When this happens, the paper will be the only publication in the country which deals exclusively with human rights issues.

King – whose own father was brutally murdered by former president Charles Taylor’s rebel soldiers – says: ‘The fear of going back is there, but if we are to have a real democracy and heal our nation, we need a vociferous media. That’s why I’m bringing The Vision home.’

The move will also reunite King with a family he believed to be dead. In 2004, when the first batch of refugees returned to Liberia from Buduburam, King distributed copies of The Vision. Incredibly, one fell into the hands of his mother. Now, for the first time since the age of 12, a jubilant King will soon see his family. ‘Thinking about it makes me forget that I’m sick,’ he declares. ‘The minute I get off that plane, I’m going to kiss the ground – kiss Liberia.’

Semantics King Jr talked with Rosamund de Sybel

This column was published in the September 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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